Knowing Your Limits
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 JOEL BARLOW
A Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment
Idaho Army National Guard
I remember my first night vision goggle (NVG) flight in a UH-60 at flight school. It was a beautiful Alabama night with great illume and we were practicing roll-ons at one of the stagefields. There were trees at the approach end of the runway and I had to level my approach above the tops and then descend quickly past them to have enough room to terminate the roll-on at the departure end.
As a typical flight school student capable of misjudgment, I didn’t descend quickly enough on my second approach and touched down midfield. At that point, I had a choice to increase power and perform a go-around or try to commit to the landing and use aggressive braking. I committed to the landing and pumped the breaks to slow down. When it was apparent I would roll off the departure end of the runway, I applied firm, constant pressure in an attempt to stay on the improved surface.
We ended up about 10-15 feet into the grass. I was amazed — not because we didn’t crash, but because my instructor pilot had his arms folded the entire time. He never took the controls and never seemed worried for a second. I erupted in nervous laughter and said, “Wow! Apparently I didn’t exceed your threshold for fear of crashing.” He chuckled calmly and said, “No, I saw what you were doing and figured it would be a good lesson for you. What could you have done differently?”
He later explained that as time goes on, you develop a much more advanced awareness of the aircraft and what you can do with it. He said a small amount of fear caused by a mistake can teach you valuable lessons about knowing your limits and not getting complacent.
I’ve accumulated more hours and experience since flight school and developed confidence in my abilities as a pilot. I have made mistakes and I have approached my threshold, but I always made a conscious effort to make every flight safe. We can’t always see far enough ahead in the cockpit to avoid making mistakes. The goal is to make the fewest number of mistakes possible that have the least amount of impact on completing the mission.
One small mistake is capable of producing catastrophic consequences. By having a better understanding of our own limitations, as well as the limitations of the aircraft, we can increase our chances of avoiding those catastrophic mistakes. If you let your threshold for danger grow too large, you may not live to learn from your mistake.